WTPOA: What’s the point of acronyms?

What’s the point of acronyms? Or if you prefer, WTPOA. Well surely there can only really be one point, and that is to save time. But does using acronyms really save time? I don’t think so.

I read a lot of documents that have a long list of the acronyms used in the document at the beginning. As soon as I see the list, my heart sinks. I am less enthusiastic about the choice I made to read the document, rather than do something else. And then the page turning begins. MTO..? Flip back to the list. Ah, OK. ‘Money Transfer Operator’. OK. Flip back to the text. RSP..? Flip back to the list. Ah, OK. ‘Remittance Service Provider’. OK. Flip back to the text. Hang on a minute. What’s the difference between an MTO and and RSP? Still not sure.

These acronyms are saving someone time but it doesn’t seem to be saving me, the reader, much time at all. In fact, you could argue that it is both slowing me down and disrupting the flow of my reading. And that just means that your message is struggling get through to me. If you want to save yourself time, use a service like Typeit4Me or TextExpander.

The other day I was working my way through a 90 page slide deck of an organizational strategy, which had no doubt been done in PowerPoint rather than Word to make it more accessible. It had some graphics, which were welcome indeed. But it was littered with acronyms. Only when I got to page 86, did I find the three page list of acronyms, at the back. But it was too late. I wasn’t going to go back through the document to decipher the code.

Final anecdote. I was at an evening event: a dinner with networking drinks as guest arrived. I spoke to a charming person who told me that they had been working in “RH” for the last five years. “I’m sorry, ‘RH’?” I asked. “Oh, sorry,” they said, “‘Reproductive Health’.” “Ah, right, yes.” I said. They went on to explain how passionate they were about “the ASH agenda.” “I’m sorry, ‘ASH?” I asked. “Oh, sorry,” they said, “Adolescent Sexual Health.” “Ah, right, yes.” Awkward silence.

The only acronym I’ve found helpful to use is ‘ICYMI’ (in case you missed it) when sign posting on social media that the following content is not necessarily new but is still relevant.

For me, acronyms, are in the same category as jargon. They help a small group of people who have an area of expertise in common, to save a small amount of time, by using a discourse which excludes others. So in that regard, although they may deepen your conversation, they also narrow it. In communications terms, acronyms simply create barriers. Don’t use them.

Richard Darlington is Head of Strategic Communications at Well Told Story and Well Made Strategy. Follow him on Twitter: @RDarlo

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